Bullying in the workplace: Mobbing and mental health

Mobbing, a form of workplace bullying, involves repeated and systematic harassment, intimidation, and exclusion by colleagues or superiors.

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Mobbing may present as 'subtle' and stealthy: undermining comments, excluding behaviours, 'put downs', and openly criticising/disparaging a colleague to others without addressing issues directly or professionally with the targeted individual. 


Why does mobbing cause harm?

Driven by a need for power, bullies create an 'in-group' to isolate and undermine the target, profoundly impacting their mental health and job performance. The emotional toll of mobbing can be likened to a traumatic experience, as feeling excluded from a group stirs anxiety directly related to the threat to survival posed by being 'cast out'.

The pain of exclusion may feel surprisingly acute in response to commonplace experiences that are not usually framed as traumatic. However, the human brain struggles to differentiate between being excluded from the group or tribe, and experiences such as being excluded from a friendship group or social event, being picked last for a team in PE at school, perceiving your parents to prefer a sibling, or feeling humiliated in front of peers at school. Feeling 'cast out', in any context, may result in a painful emotional response.

In human and animal societies, mobbing can enforce social hierarchies. Dominant individuals may encourage mobbing to maintain their status and control the group, preventing perceived challenges to their authority and position. However, bullying and harassment, behaviours that make someone feel intimidated or offended, are unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. There is no legal definition of bullying, but the Anti-Bullying Alliance describes it as:

"Bullying is the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. It can happen face-to-face or online. This behaviour is a way of offending, intimidating, insulting, undermining, or humiliating others with malicious intent – resulting in physical and/or emotional harm' [Workplace bullying: What is it? And how do we stop it?"

- Psychiatry-UK

How widespread is mobbing?

Mobbing behaviour occurs across different sectors, including those associated with providing care to others: healthcare, education, finance, etc. Dr Samuel Parker, at the British Medical Association conference in July 2023, highlighted that bullying and harassment persist within the NHS despite multiple serious incidents, reducing morale, increasing staff absences, and ultimately diminishing patient care.

A YouGov Poll for the Trades Union Congress found that 29% of people have been the victims of workplace bullying, nearly three in every 10 workers, equating to more than the populations of Scotland and Wales combined.

Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) shows that 15% of UK employees experienced bullying, including more subtle actions like inappropriate jokes, spreading rumours, or ignoring someone (CIPD.org, March 2022). The following case study illustrates how it may start and escalate.


Example of mobbing; Rebecca’s experience 

*The case study presented in this article is a fictional narrative created for illustrative purposes. The case study highlights the issues and consequences of mobbing behaviour in the workplace and should not be interpreted as a factual account.

Rebecca, a newly qualified psychiatrist, experienced mobbing firsthand. Enthusiastic and tending to 'people please,' Rebecca immediately agreed when her supervisor asked her to attend a 9 am online meeting hosted by a respected consultant external to the organisation. The acceptance left Rebecca with significant practical challenges, which she addressed by booking a room and parking space at the hospital so that she could attend the meeting online and see patients immediately afterwards.

Rebecca left home at 5 am. Despite careful planning, she was delayed by a motorway closure due to an accident, exiting the park and dialling into the meeting from the car at 9 am. A common occurrence as team members were located nationally and frequently experienced delays, Rebecca apologised, explained, and offered to either listen in from the car or join late on arrival at the hospital.

She was greeted by a frosty silence. The consultant coldly asked her to leave the meeting and declared her presence inappropriate and 'unboundaried'. Rebecca felt anxious and confused but hoped that colleagues would back her. Eventually, she reached the hospital, rejoining the meeting for 30 minutes. The consultant ignored her presence. Surprised by the hostile response, Rebecca suppressed her unease in focusing on patient consultations.

Over the following week, Rebecca noticed a growing distance from her colleagues. A junior college student mentored by Rebecca shared her discomfort at repeated barbs made by the consultant to others, undermining her character and professionalism. The colleague asked not to be named, fearing that she, too, would be targeted.

Rebecca hoped that she could repair the rift with the consultant during the next meeting, as her email explaining and apologising had been unanswered. At the start of the next meeting, the consultant snapped at Rebecca that she was 'far too busy' to read her email.

A month after the initial incident, a colleague from another organisation called Rebecca. Explaining that he did not want to put anything in writing, he warned that the consultant had used her name during training as an example of a 'lack of professionalism.' The colleague warned Rebecca that the consultant had similarly targeted a junior staff member, turning colleagues against him until he left the organisation.

By now, Rebecca's confidence at work had rapidly declined. She felt anxious about repairing the damage to her professional relationships, waking up at 4 am. Reluctantly, Rebecca approached the HR department for help. She learnt that the consultant had breached ethical and contractual agreements by openly disparaging her work and not taking up concerns professionally with her directly. 

The outcome

Organisationally, mobbing bullying created a toxic work environment within the department and lowered morale. Rebecca felt she could not trust her colleagues or perform her best, so she left the institution. The department lost a highly trained psychiatrist.

Recently, she was surprised to be greeted by the consultant publicly at a conference, observing that feelings of shame, humiliation and vulnerability re-emerged. Rebecca sought help through psychodynamic psychotherapy, exploring how she sought validation from others, including senior staff members. She realised that low self-esteem and striving to please and avoid conflict led to a tendency to accommodate the needs of others above her own, placing her in a vulnerable position and diminishing her needs and well-being. Rebecca now better understands the dynamics of bullying and how to identify patterns and behaviours described below.


Why do people initiate mobbing?

The psychology of a bully who initiates mobbing behaviour can be understood through various factors and motivations:

1. Power and control

  • Dominance: Bullies often seek to establish or maintain dominance within a social hierarchy. In Rebecca's case, the consultant's criticism may have been an attempt to showcase their professionalism.
  • Insecurity: Bullies may assert control to boost their self-worth. The consultant in Rebecca's case likely felt validated by aligning her criticisms with those of respected peers.

2. Social status

  • Peer approval: Bullies might mob to gain approval and higher social status among their peers. Rebecca's experience shows that even professions associated with altruism are not immune to self-promotion at the expense of others.
  • Group dynamics: Bullies rally others to create a united front against the target. Rebecca's colleagues were too intimidated to contradict the consultant's criticisms.

3. Displacement of aggression

  • Projection: Bullies project their feelings of inadequacy onto their victims. Despite the consultant's confidence, underlying anxiety might have driven her behaviour. The meeting contained professionals who had published work and were well-known. Perhaps the consultant felt driven to convey an 'idealised' position to align with those perceived as most senior in the room.
  • Displacement: Aggressive impulses that cannot be expressed elsewhere may be redirected towards vulnerable targets; if the consultant felt anxiety, even unconsciously, at attending the meeting, any vulnerability or feelings of inadequacy were projected and assigned to Rebecca.

4. Lack of empathy

  • Desensitisation: Bullies often lack empathy, are desensitised to others' suffering or lack emotional development. The consultant had held a senior position for some years and was known for communicating categorical opinions and dismissing different schools of thought.
  • Psychopathic traits: Some bullies exhibit traits like a lack of remorse, superficial charm, and manipulativeness.

5. Reinforcement and rewards

  • Positive reinforcement: Successful bullying episodes provide immediate rewards like attention and admiration, reinforcing the behaviour.
  • Negative reinforcement: Avoidance of becoming a victim themselves can also reinforce bullying behaviour.

6. Environmental and cultural factors

  • Modelling: Exposure to aggressive behaviour in the home, media, or community can normalise bullying and mobbing.
  • Cultural norms: Cultures glorifying toughness and aggression may encourage bullying for social acceptance and success. Cultural differences significantly influence the acceptance and prevalence of mobbing behaviour. Mobbing might be less tolerated in collectivist cultures, emphasising group harmony and collective well-being as it disrupts social cohesion. However, when Mobbing occurs, it may be more covert and subtle to avoid overt conflict.

Addressing mobbing: when to seek help

For victims of mobbing, it is essential to seek support and assistance, such as talking to a trusted colleague, friend, or family member, seeking counselling or therapy, or contacting HR or a supervisor for help can provide much-needed support. Victims need to know they are not alone and that resources are available to help them address and overcome this behaviour.

Mobbing bullying behaviour at work is a serious issue with devastating effects on individuals and organisations. If you have been impacted by bullying to the detriment of your well-being and mental health and wish to access psychological support, this NHS resource is a useful starting point.


References:

  • Anti-bullying alliance
  • CIPD. (2022). Bullying and harassment | CIPD Viewpoint.
  • Crestcom. (2023). Is Likeability Important in Leadership?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London W10 & Gerrards Cross SL9
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Written by Helen Hadden, Psychotherapist; psychodynamic & EMDR, adults. BPC, MBACP
London W10 & Gerrards Cross SL9

I work with adults in the NHS and private practice, offering psychodynamic psychotherapy and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) online and in person. Originally developed to treat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), EMDR is now used to treat many issues, including anxiety and depression.

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